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It’s cake, Jim, but not as we know it…

It’s been an eventful week. In a move of incredible efficiency, the entire family my side managed to meet at my mum’s and clear out the junk in her barn and garage. There was a lot of junk. Imagine a room that’s hot and stuffy and packed to the gunwales with crap. Imagine four beds that have been left, untouched, for some years. Now imagine this in a building infested with mice, squirrels and other sundry vermin.

Nearly empty ready for sweeping.

The cobwebs alone were epic, like something out of a film. You know, one of those films where you’d go,

‘Those cobwebs are a bit unrealistic, cobwebs never look like that in real life.’

Newsflash: they do.

The beds had been nibbled, pieces of newspaper had been dragged into them, the floor was about two inches thick with the desiccated carapace of wood lice that spiders had eaten. Everything had those little dots on which are, I’m afraid, spider poo – I discussed this on another post somewhere didn’t I, the one about the toboggan. Everything else was covered in mouse droppings. The squirrels had left hazelnuts all over the shop and their … er hem … motions … had left a kind of stodgy stinky pile in the middle of the floor.

And this is the crap that came out.

McOther found a dead mouse and the skeleton of a squirrel. There were also two lots of cat poo which must have been from my parents’ old cat, Abbie, who died in the mid 1990s. They were rock hard, anyway. The beds and mattresses were unbelievably vile. The stuff of nightmares.

After a day of sweeping, scrubbing and heavy lifting we ended up with a massive pile of rubbish and a clear top barn.

We bought hazmat suits but ended up not wearing them. It was too hot. Although I did use a smog mask for sweeping out and wore gloves at all times, three pairs of surgical gloves at once in fact. The dust while sweeping was horrible and I mentioned the cobwebs didn’t I? Shudders.

After a very busy day, we all went home and the lovely chap from the local skip company turned up with a van to take it all away the next morning. Turns out there are two loads so he took the first one and is coming back for the remains of it on Tuesday. We put the few items being kept back in the barn. Highlights included:

Two old bed pans, a baby weighing scale from about 1910, some early 20th century skis, an ice pick that looked about contemporary with Scot’s trip to the Antarctic and an ancient crane, probably from about the same era as the baby weighing scale. When we arrived home they’d shut our street to do resurfacing work. The only way to get to our drive was by going the wrong way down two one way streets. That was interesting.

On Thursday, after we’d arrived home, McMini took delivery of a gun that fires small gel balls, like those things flowers sometimes come in. They arrive tiny and you put them in water and watch them grow. McMini assures me they disappear eventually but for the time being they’re all over the garden. After waiting several hours for the first packet of balls to hydrate I was liberally strafed as I went about my business. Meanwhile, I browsed the net and picked up some more stuff for McOther’s birthday, things he doesn’t realise he’ll be receiving.

Needless to say, I got far too engrossed in this and while scoring a whole bunch of things I think he’ll like I completely forgot about some other stuff like time and McMini’s Boys’ Brigade band practise. I realised twenty minutes before, when it was far too late to give him food. I managed to make a hasty chicken roll and gave him a bowl of olives but we were late. So much for being smug about McOther’s birthday gifts.

McMini dropped off, I came home and discovered my ancient Wilkinson’s ‘greenhouse’ listing at a worrying angle. Further investigation showed it was in trouble and probably about to collapse. While I wondered which of the tomato plants to take out first the ‘shelf’ gave up the ghost, dumping four of them all onto the ground below.

To be honest, I was worried it might not make it through this growing season. It’s little more than a metal frame with a plastic cover over it so the fact it’s lasted five years, at least, is a minor miracle. I got the tomatoes out but then had to go back and collect McMini and leave them to their fate. Needless to say, it took a whole day to sort them out. On the upside, two of the four plants came out reasonably OK, if battered. The others are bollocksed but who knows, they might perk up. Luckily, McOther was cooking that night and McMini did get to eat, he just had to eat with us rather than beforehand.

As you can imagine, rebuilding the ‘greenhouse’ so it wouldn’t fall down again took a sod of along time. Throughout the process I was strafed liberally, a second time, with the rest of the gel balls. McMini had hydrated all of them in a container that was only designed for half, luckily I happened on them as the balls began to expand their way out of the top and moved the frogspawn-like mess to a kilner jar.

Greenhouse fixed and tiny bouncy gel balls cleared up, it was time to dump the car off for … yikes … electrical repairs and then I left McMini at home and legged it up the hill to buy the ingredients for McOther’s birthday cake.

When I arrived home the presents McOther requested had arrived and I had to take an hour out to sit and feel smug about my incredible efficiency. OK so the others won’t arrive until Tuesday but you can’t win ’em all and he doesn’t know he’s getting those.

After a brief discussion with McOther this morning, he chose to have an orange and poppy seed cake. I decided I’d make muffins and then ice them with orange butter icing.

Why do I do these idiotic things? I’m a complete fucking bampot, that’s why.

It was a hot day and I learned a very Important Thing.

It was this.

Butter icing melts at a certain temperature.

Sadly, I don’t know exactly which temperature it is, only that the air temperature in my kitchen was a tiny bit higher this afternoon. So the beautiful piped rosettes on the cakes began to melt, a factor which was probably exacerbated by my own impatience as the cakes were tepid rather than cold when I began. Note to self, put bastard cakes in fridge or let them cool long enough.

It’s cake, Jim, but not as we know it!

Naturally, I chronically underestimated the amount of icing required and as I only had one orange, there wasn’t enough orange juice left to make the second batch of icing orange-flavoured either so I had to use a lemon. I hurriedly reclaimed the squeezed orange rinds from the pot I’d stuffed them into, ready for the compost, and removed the last scrapings of zest – don’t do disgusting things like this at home kids. Two cakes later and I had to make a bastard third batch, not a nod to orange, that one, lemon only.

Cakes done, I realised the Happy Birthday candle I was going to use was broken but I did, at least, manage to glue it back together by melting the wax a little bit over the stove and then holding the two ends together until they stuck. Finally, I stuck it into the tray of cakes, covered the revolting mess with sprinkles and put the tray in the fridge.

Fingers and toes crossed.

Now I’m taking a couple of minutes to read, sitting in the evening sun, while nature pelts me with flying ants. That’s probably what I get for being egocentric enough to be sat here reading my own books. But there’s method in my madness. In order to get the continuity right in my upcoming series I have to re-read the old one so here I am.

Never mind, onwards and upwards, I’m going on my first dig of the autumn tomorrow. Here’s hoping I find something interesting.

How’s your week been? A little more restful than mine I hope.

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Random stuff …

Today, I’m slightly short of inspiration. I wanted to write something smart and pithy but frankly, while I’m habitually too pithy much of the time, I’ve been the antithesis of smart for some months now. Even so, the Dad dust is settling I think, or at least, beginning to die down – I still owe a lot of people letters, though, sorry if you’re one of them.

While we were on holiday I did dip a cautious toe into writing again. OK so it was only a few hundred words and constipation and brain fog week hit immediately afterwards scuppering it at once but it was there and that’s progress. It’s not beyond the realms that I’ll get a submission in for Christmas Lites this year, it depends how the holidays and the first week of term go. Meanwhile Mum seems a lot chirpier and is starting to do things again, pottering in the kitchen and the garden, she’s much chattier and happier and a great deal more alert which is wonderful.

When it comes to me though, I am less than alert. Just before my holiday, I managed to lose my penknife and then proceeded to lose the replacement in less than 24 hours. I had a back up but it wasn’t very sharp so I managed to make a pretty good effort at cutting the top of my finger off  with it while trying to help myself to a slice of cheese while we were away. I inadvertently brought the SD stick I own with a back up of my entire computer hard drive, and all my photos, and then, realising what I had done, instead of hiding it in the deepest, darkest, chasms of my bag so I’d not lose it, I tucked it carefully away on the bedside shelves at the hotel and left it there when we departed.

On the last day of our holiday we were in a hotel with a self service breakfast bar. Like many of them, it had one of those egg boilers, you know the kind of thing a tank of water with a lid and you put a raw egg in a kind of wire mesh spoon/cup with a long hooked handle. Then you put the egg in the water, hooking the end of the spoon/cup over the side, put the lid on and turn it up so it boils.

///roped.luckier.truce
///hubcap.collaboration.regiment

While I was waiting for them to replenish the supply of pancakes, I decided I’d do a hard boiled egg and then keep it for my lunch. When I came to the boiler there’d been some accidents. A half peeled egg and another unpeeled virgin boiled egg lay in the bottom where, presumably, they had irretrievably escaped from their spoon/cup things. Knowing how long eggs can take in these boilers, I toyed with the idea of retrieving the lost eggs of others rather than cooking my own. I have learned, the hard way, that you need to leave the eggs in a fair while even if you are savvy enough to know that you must turn it up because it may take five minutes to come to the boil. Get this wrong and, three hours later, you peel your egg in famished anticipation only to discover the yolk and most of the white are raw. Tempted though I was to remove the eggs from the bottom since the half peeled one, at any rate, was definitely cooked. It occurred to me that they might be a bit too cooked, nobody likes a raw egg, but no-one likes an egg that’s come through cooked and out the other side to bouncy, indestructible rubberiness either. I turned the boiler right up and left the egg in there while I had my pancakes.

Later as we were leaving the hotel, I was convinced that I’d forgotten something. Something important, but I couldn’t remember what – I left the SD stick at a different hotel – so it wasn’t that, anyway, at this point, I thought I still had it. There I was racking my brains as we left the car park when I remembered!

‘On no!’ I said.

McOther stopped the car.

‘What is it?’ he asked, his voice full of concern.

‘I forgot my egg.’

Guffaws from the back!

‘Oh my god Dad! She’s channelling Pops! D’you want to go back? You do don’t you? You’ve got to go back because it’s food!’ said McMini.

I looked at my watch.

‘Alas, it’s after ten, they’ll have cleared it away … Pity, I was really looking forward to that egg.’

This escapade made me feel very at one with my dad (as did losing so many Important Items over the holiday – not to mention inadvertently bringing one with me in order to lose it really thoroughly, the hotel are looking but are not optimistic about finding it). But on the egg front, especially, I was extremely disappointed and I know Dad would have felt similar disappointment and probably expressed it in a very similar way. Never mind, it may chalk us both up as nutters, but if I can be half the human being he was, I’ll be very happy.

Back to writing. I noticed a post on a metal detecting group I follow about an app that’s pure genius. What3Words was invented by a guy who realised that you could break the entire GPS grid up into 3 metre x 3 metre squares and each one has a three word code. There are trillions of squares but only 40,000 words are needed which is amazing. It’s accurate but it’s also genius because by using words it uses less memory and works on nanky old machines where new stuff won’t. It also means the phone doesn’t have to have a signal for it to work.

The thing is, if you’re a metal detectorist you want to know what your GPS coordinates are when you find something good because you need to log it on the national finds database. With this app you can find your three word location, even when your phone has no signal. And of course, when you get home, you can convert those three words to GPS coordinates from inside the app at the touch of a button.

As an example of what the coordinates look like in what three words, the door of number ten Downing Street is ///slurs.this.shark but the spot across the road where the press usually stand is ///stage.pushy.nuns.

Taking another example of coordinates: I grew up in a school and the spot where my old bedroom is located is the intersection between four squares. These squares are: ///blockage.year.rally ///impeached.front.mistress ///mocked.curly.eyelashes and ///digested.starch.gravy. Meanwhile our lavatory was situated at ///spoil.infects.severe which sounds about right to be honest.

Any writers reading will already see where I’m going with this. Somehow, despite these three words being random meaningless phrases, I found that as I looked up places that had been part of my life or just randomly stuck my finger on countries around the globe I began to see these three words as reading like some cryptic story. Mocked curly eyelashes and digested starch gravy are just asking to be turned into flash fiction aren’t they?  And what’s a front mistress and why was she impeached?

The best one I’ve found so far is in Russia somewhere on what looks like a building site from the satellite images ///Mondays.smugly.coping. Clearly someone who starts the week in a better frame of mind than I do.

 

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More thoughts about grief …

Vimy Ridge 100 years on

This week we’ve been visiting a lot of First World War sites. On balance, this was probably less than smart, so soon after my father’s death. But in another way it was cathartic. Grief is a properly odd thing and sometimes it does you good to take a few quiet moments to have a snivel and let it out. You can’t sweep it under the carpet and pretend it’s not happening. That doesn’t help.

However, that said, it does tend to pop up in weird ways when you least expect it. Case in point, Dad. When Dad died it was the culmination of nearly fourteen years worrying about his mental health. He was calm, totally ready and for those few days before he left us, it was as if he’d come back to us. After his total loss of reason, and the psychotic stage he had returned to us a fair bit, in the home. He came out of the small boy stage and was a grown man again, struggling with his affliction in different ways.

In those weeks, he was calmer and seemed happier but looking back on it, perhaps it was because he’d decided this was the end of the road and resigned himself. I worried that he was fighting and losing. Looking back on it, I think it more likely that he was coming to terms with things and I was seeing the light and shade of his various moods as he worked through it. The thing about Dad’s death though, was that it was a really, really good one. People who loved him were with him, reassuring him and he was a man of faith, and while I’m sure he appreciated that reassurance, he probably didn’t need it.

It was a relief, for him and us, because it was the end of his suffering. It may look callous saying that but I remember waking up the morning after Dad had died and feeling sad that he had gone and that there really was no going back now and at the same time, also feeling as if an enormous weight of responsibility had been lifted from me and feeling happy for Dad (although as a Christian who believes there’s some kind of after life that might be easier for me than it is for some folks).

Now, I don’t know what I expected from the grieving process but it seems most sensible to accept it’s there and roll with the punches when it pops up. But I’ve noticed two things which might help other people.

Thing one: No matter how good the death, no matter if death was the only place to go and no matter if the death was a good one, you will feel incredibly sad. Not only that but if my own experience is anything to go by, you will feel way, way, sadder than expected.

‘But it’s your dad! Of course you’re sad!’ I hear you say. Well, yes, but I’ve spent the last eight or nine years, at least losing little pieces of my dad each day, and I’ve spent the last five years grieving for those pieces of his personality, facets of his sense of humour, things that gradually faded until I could no longer resurrect them. There was a horrible point where the jokes we used to have suddenly stopped working.

‘I don’t know why you think that’s so fucking funny,’ I remember him saying about what I’d thought was his absolute favourite joke between us. ‘Stop saying it.’

Various people have told me that, after an illness, you get the person back. I think I’m too brain fogged to get much back, my short term memory is completely shot, just yesterday I was chatting to McMini and he reminded me of something we did together, when he was a child, an event of which I have absolutely no memory. That is quite frightening because such a total and utter memory loss has never happened to me before. No matter that my diagnosis was hormones, I have some pretty deep set misgivings, in my own mind, that I have dementia, myself. That said, a friend (0lder) who suffered depression when her kids were growing up says there are huge tracts of their lives she simply can’t remember. She put it down to the medication, but it must have been stressful, and I’ve been pretty stressed for at least eight of McMini’s eleven years, maybe I it’s just that. Yeh, I’ll cling to that hope. If it isn’t, I just hope I can hold it together until Mum goes, or even better until McMini hits twenty one. That would be another eight years. Mmm … fingers and toes crossed.

What I was trying to say, after that considerable tangent, is that I haven’t got the memories back really, I still can’t remember anything much before the dementia (Dad’s) but I do have a much better conception of what he was like when he was firing on all cylinders; his cheekiness, his sense of fun, the things he loved and the things that made him laugh. I can remember his humanity, his compassion, his kindness – partly because his behaviour was the antithesis of many public figures today, not to mention the current behavioural ethos which seems to be that we should each be as big a cunt as we can be because it’s our right and we ‘shouldn’t take it’ from other people.

Which brings us to Thing Two: I guess the moral of this is simply that even if you are expecting it to be weird and trying to be open, not fret and accept the nature of the beast, grief still pops up when you don’t expect it and surprises you.

But after a death when it’s really a release and the person who died was clearly at peace and happy to do so, I guess I assumed I’d mourn less perhaps, or at least differently. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but when you’ve been losing a person for so long while they’re alive and grieving their loss has already been going on for some years I suppose I thought that the grief of the actual death would be … easier?

Or to put it another way, for all my trying to be open minded and take it as it comes, it seems I’d assumed that there’s a finite amount of grief and that I’d used up a good half of it while Dad was still alive.

I was wrong.

That’s probably worth remembering. Meanwhile, for now, for me, it’s head down, give it space whenever I can and wait. I’ll get used to it eventually.

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Grief

Today, I’m a bit strapped for time. I was hoping I’d find something I’d started in my drafts folder that I could just finish off. Unfortunately I didn’t. It reminds me of a story the priest at our church when I was a nipper once told, about a German colleague called Hans. Hans had endured an extremely busy time so a week came when he was able to kick back and relax, which he did. All he had to do the entire week was write a sermon for a service he was taking on the Sunday.

However, when our mate Hans sat down to write, he found himself completely devoid of inspiration. He looked up the readings for the Sunday but remained uninspired. He tried the whole week’s readings, but they, too, left him cold. He eventually procrastinated, until late on the Saturday night, when he thought about it and still found nothing. Then he remembered the point in the New Testament when someone, is it Paul? talking about the Holy Spirit says something along the lines of, ‘don’t worry what you have to say because the Holy Spirit will speak through you.’

Brilliant! Of course! Hans thought, that’s it, the Holy Spirit will speak through me. Thank God for that! He knew he’d be fine. He put down his pen, closed the notebook and went to bed.

The next morning, still no inspiration. Never mind, the Holy Spirit would speak through him, he thought. As he climbed the steps up to the pulpit finally, something popped into his head. Was this the spirit speaking to him? Yes, surely it was, but unfortunately, what it said was,

‘Hans, you have been very lazy this week.’

Like Hans, I have been very lazy. Or at least, I have not left the time required to write about the things that are inspiring me, so I thought I’d have a quick word about grief because I think it’s a topic to which I can do the most justice in the shortest possible time!

Grieving is a weird thing.

When Dad died, he was totally calm and at peace; absolutely unafraid. I felt almost happy for him because I knew it was the right thing, the only way forward; on to the next adventure.

Yes, he believed there is something in us that goes on, and I do too. This is mainly because the corpses I’ve seen have been so strikingly inanimate, so very much things. Like a car without driver, or a bicycle without anybody to pedal it, a body without … whatever it is that animates us … ain’t going nowhere. And when you see one, it’s very, very clear that there is something else important, something that’s missing.

So he’s gone. And although I wouldn’t have him back the way he was for anything, because he had lost his quality of life and he was losing himself at that point but that doesn’t stop me missing Dad.

A while back, McMini went to two nursery settings. One he was fine, the other thought he had problems and contacted me to explain that he was not able to sit still or pay proper attention to instructions, etc. At the time, I was fully prepared to discover my son was dyspraxic or dyslexic in some form or other, so I wasn’t as fazed as they were. At that point, Dad was forgetful but very much with us in all other respects so I asked his advice.

If your son can’t sit still and listen to instructions it means they’re not engaging him properly. I’d say the problem is with them not McMini. What does the other setting say? Oh, I hadn’t asked. I did. They told me that if they had a three year old boy in their charge who was actually able to sit still for ten minutes THAT is when they’d consider he had a problem. They told me McMini was very advanced in many ways, bright, cheerful, very articulate and able to do things like walk on a balance beam with an ability that was well ahead of his age.

This side of Dad, this being able to ask him advice and chat things over with him and get the same reply he’d have given pre Alzheimer’s; that didn’t disappear until, literally, the last year and a half of his life. It’s one of the things I really missed in the latter stages and despite thinking I’d probably done that bit of grieving somewhere along the line. It turns out, now he’s gone, that I haven’t. I miss that just as keenly now he’s dead. Perhaps, that particular loss is compounded by the fact that Mum has just reached the stage where, while still able to chat things over and give advice, she is no longer able to do it every time I see her.

Oh dear … this is what we’re up against.

McMini, meanwhile has been affected. He’s very scared of death, he’s just reaching that stage in life where you realise things aren’t cut and dried, black and white, and simple the way they are when you’re a kid. The point when your history lessons shift from, X did this, to we haven’t a clue WHY X did this, which is much more interesting, but also much harder, because unless someone can actually talk to X and ask them, we’ll never, ever know the true why.

McMini deals with his fears through the medium of dark humour. Some of it, though dark, is still funny. Some of it has gone beyond dark, to the point where I’ve been questioning whether or not he is actually quite disturbed. Anyone remember dead baby jokes when we were kids? (How do you make a dead baby float? Two scoops of ice cream and one scoop of dead baby.) Start there. Example, he has decided he is an Inca lord in his Minecraft game and every time it’s evening in the game, he sacrifices some villagers to the sun god. I get it, what people do to one another is scary and this trivialises it and makes it less scary, especially in a time where politics is so angry and the right wing has a seemingly relentless grip on power and is about where the Fascists sat back in the 1980s.

As a child, back in the 1980s, I remember being completely shocked by the Second World War and struggling to get my head round the atrocities of the holocaust, of how decent normal people allowed this to happen. I remember making many, many jokes about Hitler, the Third Reich etc because the whole idea of concentration camps was so gargantuan and horrific. Such immense evil was unimaginable, and also fascinating. And furthermore, very real, because I could talk to anyone over the age of about sixty and they would have been involved in it.

Clearly, in the current political landscape, where campaigning is little more than the art of organised bullying; of uniting a group of people against another group of people, convincing one set of people that another is inhuman as Goebbels described it, I’m in the privileged position of watching it happen a second time. These days, I have a much greater understanding of how Nazism came about. But back then, in the 1980s, when racism, rather than main stream, was tantamount to proclaiming yourself a massive shit with no mates, it seemed beyond understanding.

However, while McMini’s father and I reckon that, for the most part, this is just a phase, we have been warning him, for some time, that he is walking a very narrow line and that he should step back from this and rein the really sick stuff in. He hasn’t, since he has friends who share his fears and find the same release in poking fun at murder, evil etc. Bear in mind he has seen an elderly woman being abducted in broad daylight – she was looking into the back of a van. ‘You can get inside and have a closer look if you like,’ said one of the drivers. She got in and he slammed the door then he and his friend drove off laughing. We never got to the bottom of what that was. It didn’t help that I thought it was part of a crime weekend as it was just before the Christmas Fayre and I only realised it wasn’t when said crime weekend took place the following March. We reported it to the police but it was way too late by then. God knows what happened to that old woman or who the blokes in the van were.

It all came to a head at school this week, with an extremely inappropriate text sent by McMini, by mistake, to the wrong person – who was upset and whose parents were extremely upset. Nobody was horrible about it, everyone basically said, ‘your lad is lovely and we know he’s lovely and this was clearly a mistake, but he’s over-stepped the mark.’

The head master rang me, said that McMini was a little tearful about the things that frightened him and explained that he was trivialising them because it helped him feel less scared. He suggested McMini should talk to his father and I about his fears. As I have suggested to McMini many times, myself, to no avail.

It felt like a big parenting fail. Because the first person I’d have talked to about this, as a child, would have been my Mum or Dad. But I was different, and as such I was often bullied, whereas McMini, though he is also different in exactly the same ways I was, is not bullied. Indeed his unique take on the world is celebrated and loved by his friends and teachers alike, which just goes to show how splendid they all are, but also means he follows the normal path; of unity with his friends and rebellion against his parents. A path with which I am completely unfamiliar.

As a result, I can’t help but feel that I have failed him, because I hoped our relationship would be as close as mine with my parents. And while it is in some respects, he was too frightened to talk to me. Which cuts a bit. And of course, throughout his period of obsession with death, killing, murderers etc over this last couple of years, I’ve so needed to talk to someone, myself, someone who can tell me whether or not my son is deeply disturbed or just going through a phase. And that’s where grief gets you, because the person who would have done this, is Dad. And he’s gone. Forever. And the other person is Mum, but that part of her has gone, too. Double jeopardy.

In the end, it seems to have turned out OK. McMini’s humour will always be a little dark and possibly a little edgy and outrageous. That’s fine, I mean, mine is. We both of us love to shock he talks about death and murder, I talk about periods, the menopause and other ‘ladies things’. And I guess I have had that reassurance that he’s not nuts, that it’s just a phase and a way of exorcising his fears. But it came from his headmaster which was a bit chastening.

And the grief … well, the escalation in dark stuff is his and the complete over reaction to it, hell, my complete over reaction to everything that’s mine. My anger at the way people are just giving in to propaganda and allowing themselves to be manipulated into hating others. My frustration that they’re so fucking stupid, they’re letting the kind of rich, power obsessed, bastards who want to keep their faces ground into the mud deflect the blame for all the shit we’re in onto frightened, desperate, vulnerable people (either British people already living here or migrants from overseas) who have nothing left and are asking for help (just look at the fringes on the Brexit debate; both sides and the way the behaviour and views of those fringes has somehow become the main issue) that’s mine.

Or to put it succinctly, grief comes out in all kinds of weird ways, and it often catches you blind side. You won’t always expect it, and it will often knock you off your feet for a moment. I have no answers, no coping strategies. Real Life leaves no space for grief, but somehow, I think those of us who are grieving have to make some. You just have to let it out sometimes, and let it run its course. And I know at the moment, I’m too fucking busy, which is why it’s doing my head in. But I guess, we’re all like that, and if those of us who are grieving accept that it’s there, at least we can be prepared … sort of. Clearly I need to be a bit more like my cat and just chill.

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Registering a death … the difficult way

The flowers Mum did for Dad’s coffin.

It’s a month, almost exactly, since Dad died. The dust is beginning to settle, except that I seem to have a thousand letters to write. Jeepers but my Mum writes a lot of letters, or at least, she doesn’t any more, I write them for her. But she thanks everyone for everything and to be honest, I haven’t yet. There are lots of folks who couldn’t come who need to be sent a service sheet, and a godmother who only communicates by letter who hasn’t been told (my bad).

There is a partial reason, I’m slow at things I stress about, and for some reason I really stress about making calls, writing letters etc. Don’t get me wrong, I actually love writing a letter when I have the time and space to do so, but time and space … that’s not really something I know about anymore.

On the upside, I have kicked some royal bottom with the forms. Dad’s affairs were pretty simple. We’d spent every last penny of his assets on his care so all he had left was half of what was in the bank account, because although it officially came from Mum’s savings the account was a joint account. He also had a pension which I needed to sort out and his state pension. I think I managed to get onto the ‘tell us once’ register which means the information filters through to everyone, although as I understand it, it was the lady I rang at the pensions enquiry line who put the information on. HMRC rang anyway, and they’ll look into whether there’s any tax on Dad’s teacher’s pension that they would need to refund. Yes, despite being retired Dad paid tax on his pension. How does that work? It’s money he’s saved up while he’s working so it’s already taxed surely?

One of the things you have to do when someone dies is register the death. The undertakers, who were chuffing marvellous, helped us with all this, booking an appointment. They told us that when the death certificate came through they would call us. My dear brother had booked this registration for nine o’clock on the morning of the Friday after Dad died. However, as he made to leave the day before he realised that someone or something had smashed the back lights of his van. So he had to get it fixed. On the up side, the appointment with the registrar had been changed to four pm on the Friday. On the downside, he might not be down in time to register the death, he warned me, because he couldn’t come down until the parts were fitted and they weren’t arriving until Friday morning. If I was doing the trip, afternoon was a lot easier for me, a very much non morning person.

You have to register the death within five working days. In order to do so, you need a death certificate which you get from a Doctor. Clearly there are sometimes exceptions, if there’s a post-mortem etc. In our case the death certificate was sent to the lovely undertakers who were unbelievably fab. To register the death, you collect the death certificate from the undertakers and you go to a special office run by the Registration of Births Marriages and Deaths for your area. Usually it’ll be in your nearest big local administrative town. You need to make an appointment and they can get quite booked up so it’s wise to ensure that either you, or the undertakers, ring up to do that pretty sharpish after the death. You have ten minutes’ leeway to be late for your appointment. After that, you have to make another one.

In my case this was in Worthing, the Chichester end rather than the Brighton one. I had been foolish in that I’d been copied in on some of the email correspondence between my brother and the undertakers about this but didn’t really read the emails properly because I wasn’t expecting to be that closely involved. I just knew I had to pick the death certificate up from them sometime on Thursday, which I did. It was clear I might have to attend the meeting if my brother couldn’t make it in time, but until the van prang, I’d doubted that would happen.

Once collected, the certificate came in an envelope upon which someone had thoughtfully stamped the address of the registration office along with their phone numbers. I googled it and one of Dad and Mum’s carers, whose own father died suddenly a year and a half ago, explained that there was no parking at the offices, you had to park down a side road. That in mind, I decided to make sure I left myself plenty of time and set off early.

I arrived at 3.30 and drove in, confirmed there was, indeed, no parking, and drove out. I noticed the registration of births marriages and deaths sign straight away but my mental warning klaxons started to sound as I realised it was denuded of any actual lettering, and that this building was proclaiming itself the home of the Registration of Birth Marriages and Deaths merely by dint of dirt sticking to the glue where the letters had been.

‘Hmm,’ I said to myself.

I parked as close as I could and walked as briskly as someone who isn’t physically able to run anymore can to the reception. Naturally there was a queue.

‘I’m here to register a death,’ I said cheerfully when, after a few anxious minutes, it was finally my turn. It was one of those booths where the bullet proof glass is so thick you can’t hear the person behind it so you speak to them through an intercom.

The lady stared at me with a blank expression.

‘One moment,’ she said, her lips moving but the sound of her voice surprising me tinnily from a speaker a few feet to my right. Behind the bullet proof glass she turned to her colleague as if to have a private complication but naturally the mike amplified it all.

‘Registration of births marriages and deaths? That’s not here is it?’
‘No … I’m not sure where they are.’
‘Please help me, I can’t miss this appointment my dad died last Saturday and I have to register his death within five working days.’
The lady pursed her lips and weighed up this further information.
‘Ask Dave,’ said her colleague.
She turned back to me, as if I’d neither heard nor participated in the previous conversation and said.
‘I’m going to ask a colleague. Please wait here.’

She strolled to the back of the office and picked up a two-way radio.

‘Dave?’ she said.
Click, hiss, crackle.
‘Yeh?’
Click, crackle.
‘Lady here’s looking for the Resister of Births Marriages and Deaths. I heard her tinny amplified voice say.’
Crackle, crackle pop.
‘It’s moved.’
Hiss, click, crackle.
‘Yes.’
‘D’you know where it’s gone?’ I asked through the glass.
‘D’you know where it’s gone?’ the lady asked Dave.
Crackle, hiss, click, pop, crackle …
‘It’s near the law courts,’ he replied. ‘Next to the station.’
‘Thanks Dave,’ said the lady and I, in unison.

She returned to the window.

‘It’s near the law courts,’ she said.
‘Thanks,’ I told her, again but I was already stepping back googling the fastest route on my phone as I went.

A quick glance at my watch showed it was quarter to four. I had to get back across town but I might make it. I’d give it my best shot anyway. First I must ring the number on the envelope and tell them I was going to be late. Except the number on the envelope was as out of date as the address.

Balls! The wrong bastard number!

Now what?

Ah yes, ring the undertakers they’ll have the number because they made the appointment. I found their number on my list of made calls, phoned them and breathlessly explained my predicament as I speed-limped back to the car. They told me not to worry, that they’d ring and say I was going to be late. They were pretty sure I’d have ten minutes’ leeway. By the time I got back to my car it was ten to four, I might make it … possibly … but I needed the name of the building I was heading to. If it came down to minutes, ‘next door to the law courts’ wasn’t going to cut the mustard. I had to know exactly where I was going.

After a mile or so, I pulled in and googled, ‘Registration of Births Marriages and Deaths, West Sussex.’ It came up with the main office number in Chichester. I dialled and then as the plastic google lady shouted instructions to get to the law courts next door to their Worthing office – which was better than nothing – I drove at a very tense 30mph towards my destination, speaking to a kindly young man as I went. He eventually managed to give me the the name of the building. It turned out it was also next to the Library, which was far more helpful as I knew exactly where that was. Yes, they would give me ten minutes’ leeway but if I was later than that, I’d have to rebook.

Stuck at an interminably long red light, I put the name of the building into google and started a new set of directions.

Worthing is absolutely infested with traffic lights, and I was the one on the end of the queue who either stops and heads up the next one, or goes through every single set on the orange. Two of them had red light cameras that I hadn’t seen until I’d gone through on amber, only ramping my anxiety levels up still further. Luckily neither of them flashed. A small mercy. At last I got to a set of pedestrian lights which were going red every thirty seconds or so as the good burgers of Worthing crossed the main road going about their business. It was mostly parents with kids from my old school heading for the library on their way home.

Roundly cursing the lights, which added another precious minute to my journey time, I finally got through and turned left, where google directed, down a tiny side alley, only to be confronted with a locked bollard blocking my way and an empty car park beyond.

Bollocks!

Now thanking the good lord for the traffic lights I’d cursed, I reversed back up the narrow alley at speed and out onto the main road, with a slight squeak of tyres, as the traffic sat backed up behind the lights.

‘Your destination is on your left,’ said the plastic google lady as I passed the side road to nowhere.

Woot.

There was a parking space too. Small but … there. I reversed in, badly and after a couple of backs and forths to at least get the wheels off the pavement. I leapt out and after checking with a passer by, parking free for an hour, double woot! I ran in.

There was a reception desk, no bullet proof glass this time. I explained why I was there, they pointed me to a doorway, I pelted through and met the registrar walking down the hall. I explained what I was there for and she explained who she was and showed me into her office, with two minutes to spare …

As I sat there, a sweaty slobbering heap, she explained she’d need to ask me some questions. Listen, if you ever have to register a death in England, there are things you need to know.

Firstly, you have to have the death certificate, of course. It’s also useful to know the name of the doctor who has signed it, they couldn’t read his writing so it took a while to work out which surgery it was, look up the names of the doctors and decide which one fitted!

You will also need the person’s date of birth, National Insurance Number, date and location of death and very importantly, you need to know where they were born. If you cock any of this stuff up, then, as I write, it’s £90 to change it.  So you do want to get it right. The only one I fell down on was where Dad was born. I was pretty sure but not 100% certain so I rang Mum to check.

‘Roehampton.’
‘No that’s where you were born.’ I glanced over at the registrar. She was smiling kindly.

I remembered the name of the house Dad was born in though, and I knew that, in a complete fluke, Mum had lived there too. She might not know where Dad was born but she still knew where her old house was. Phew.

Death registered, I thanked the Registrar for staying back late on a Friday, she gave me a green form to deliver to the undertakers, without which they couldn’t bury Dad, and I headed home.

There’s nothing wipes a person out more than trying to register a death in the wrong fucking place. But it also made Dad’s death very real. It’s a strange thing, I wouldn’t have wanted him to suffer any more, indeed, I almost wanted him to die because I wanted his suffering to end and, more selfishly, I wanted my suffering to end, watching it. But on an even more selfish note, he was my Dad and so, a part of me wanted him to stay. It’s complicated and difficult to explain.

The black dot is a lark.

Driving home, I headed out of the back of Worthing and took a tiny road off the A27 that goes over the downs and into Steyning. I love that road. It’s like being on the roof of the world up there. That’s the thing about the downs, they’re quite narrow, so if you stand on top of them you can see the sea stretching away into the distance one side and the Weald the other. It was bright sun and I walked through a gate and into a field and lay in the grass for half an hour or so, looking at the blue sky, listening to the larks, letting the dust settle.

So yeh, as well as knowing your loved one’s date of birth, place of birth, date of death, place of death, national insurance number, address they died at and full name, double check by phone with the Registration of Births and Deaths for your area you’re going to the right chuffing place before you set off, alright?

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The end

on top of a Down for a while

So here we are … it’s official. I’m a demi-orphan. Dad died, peacefully, just before eleven am on Saturday 25th May. My brother and I were on separate sides of the M25. My mother was holding his hand. In those last two weeks I had two visits to Dad where there was so much love.  He seemed way more lucid too, as if being too weak to speak very much had given him back some brain power to compute the world around him. And after he’d had the last rights he was totally content, peaceful and unafraid.

Dad stopped eating. People with Alzheimer’s do this but when it happened, in April, I was away. I returned form holiday in late April to dire stories from Mum of how thin and ill he looked. Before I visited him, I asked the lady who ran the home about it. She explained that his refusal of food was, indeed, a standard Alzheimer’s symptom. I asked her if this was the end game. She told me that it depended. Dad was frightened to try and stand, he feared he’d fall, so his rehabilitation wasn’t going so well and that meant, ‘some young whippersnapper’ (her words) did everything for him, dressed him carried him … everything. The only thing he had any control over, she explained was whether he said yes or no to food and drink.

So it was about control.

‘How long does this stage go on for?’
‘How long is a piece of string?’ she replied.

She went on to explain that, while it was hard to ascertain the exact motives, at this stage of Alzheimer’s there were three reasons people stopped eating; they’d forgotten how, it was the only thing they could control, yes or no to food, or they’d had enough.

‘It’s very difficult to say but I think your Dad falls into the third group.’

She explained that both she and the doctor who had come out to see him believed it was about leaving. That Dad had simply had enough of this life and wanted to go on to the next one. I asked what I could do and she said bring things he likes for him to eat, so I bought jelly babies, wine gums and Turkish delight for the next visit – three great favourites.

He was pretty dogged, continuing to starve himself for the next few weeks with the odd break where the temptation to eat ice cream clearly became too much for him. During that time I want to see him every week; a bad visit, a pretty good visit when we did silly waves goodbye and I left him laughing and then a completely wonderful one, where I sat next to him in the lounge and recalled stuff my brother and I had done. It was like talking to someone who was half asleep, he was very weak and couldn’t raise his head, so I angled mine down so our eyes could meet. I told him what his grandchildren were up to, my lad and the others, and he smiled and chuckled, and projected this amazing aura of love. There were points where he fell asleep and I sat back and gazed out of the window, at the downs and Cissbury ring but the love thing remained. Then he’d wake up and I’d start recalling stuff again.

I’m a bit mithered about what I’ve told you but I think I mentioned that one visit was very bad, the first after my holiday. Dad told me to go away, so I held his hand and explained that he had a daughter and it was me. He changed then and was happy to let me hold his hand but there was still no response from him. It was difficult to get the measure of this new unresponsive Dad so in the end, I got out my phone, and Gutenberg, and looked up a book he used to read my brother and I at bed time, The Fierce Bad Rabbit by Beatrix Potter. I read it to him.

Dad made no sign of enjoyment but Maurice, next to him, clearly loved it. And next to Maurice was a gentleman sitting very straight with his hands on his knees staring into space. I wasn’t sure if he’d heard or not, until that good visit, near the end, with the gaps where Dad nodded off. In one of the gaps I sat back and looked over at the fellow who was sitting straight up. He was staring straight at me and then, very slowly he raised his hand and gave me a thumbs up. I don’t know what his condition was, so I’ve no idea if he was a simple Alzheimer’s sufferer saying hi or someone who fully understood how hard that previous visit had been and was giving me encouragement. Whatever it was, it brought a bit of a lump to my throat for some reason. I gave him a big smile and a thumbs up back, then Dad woke up again and we carried on.

Five days after that visit, on the Monday, is when I got the first call for the deathbed scramble I described in my previous post. Dad got the last rites, which we knew was important to him, and I felt that I was incredibly lucky that I got to say goodbye with ADBA even if it was three days beyond that before Dad actually left us. Strangely, that feeling of connection I described with Dad didn’t actually go, it stayed there, quietly in the background.

On the Friday, I got a call from Mum saying they didn’t think Dad would last long. I confess I cried on the phone and told her that I couldn’t make it that night. I prayed, sort of, only to Dad, trying to send him love and good thoughts and explain that I’d see him the following morning. McMini hadn’t seen me for four days, then, when I’d finally returned home on the Thursday, McOther was out. He begged me to stay Friday so we could have a family evening together and go to Sussex on the Saturday morning. I’d already said goodbye to Dad so any thoughts of going to Sussex that night evaporated and I agreed.

That Friday night I got a message on the carers’ chat group. Mum had rung one of the carers, worried that Dad would die when she wasn’t there. The home were brilliant and had promised us that when he became really bad there would be someone with him round the clock. They’d also told me we could go any time. The carer said she’d reassured Mum but a little while later, at half eleven, she rang me, in tears. She and her Mum were the original carers. The team has grown over the years but to start with, back in 2012? 2013? It was just the mother and then, shortly afterwards, the two of them. She loved Dad like he was her own father, people tended to do that when they were around him for long, and she explained that she felt as if she hadn’t said her goodbyes to Dad. I told her how the home had said we were welcome to go see Dad any time and said that if there was anything she needed to say to him, to go then. I told her I’d ring the home and let them know she was coming.

A few minutes later she pinged me a text to say she and her mum were going over.

I slept fitfully that night and the next morning, received a message on the carers’ WhatsApp group at about half six. The mother and daughter team who’d gone to visit Dad the night before had stayed with him, chatting and sleeping fitfully all night. They knew it was what Mum would have done if she’d had the strength and it was an act of such complete and utter love on their part which still humbles me.

They were texting to say they were leaving. They said he was able to do a half smile when they shared funny stories, so they knew he realised they were there. By half eight while McOther was out at the shops, I got another call from the home to say Dad only had a few hours left and that someone should come. I rang Mum and told her I’d put out a call on WhatsApp and it’d be the first person who answered.

The younger of the two ladies who’d been with him all night popped up and took her in.

My brother was on his way, I left as soon as McOther came home from the shops.

When Dad died I was on the four lane bit of the M25. No stopping and the traffic though slow, was moving. Thanks to our lovely carers, Mum was sitting next to him, holding his hand. The local vicar missed him, there was some huge Christian festival which blocked all the roads for miles around and she couldn’t get there in time but she said some prayers after he’d died.

Something happened, I’m not sure if it was just after or just before I got the call about him dying, I honestly don’t recall, but the feeling of connection, of love that I’d felt the at the last visit and the Wednesday before … that was still there and I was kind of praying to him I suppose. This is difficult to explain but basically I was thinking about him really hard in the hope that I could somehow send enough love out through the ether for it to reach him and for him to know where it came from.

As I thought about Dad, and tried to send him love from afar, I had this weird kind of out-of-body. I was looking at the roof of the home he was in, like the satellite picture only it was in much higher definition, receding fast, as if I was flying upwards at speed. There was a sense of freedom and unbelievable  joy. In no time, the viewpoint was high above the downs, flying along side of them towards Truleigh Hill. I could see the blue of the sky, the yellow and white of the flowers in the meadows below, I could hear the larks, drink in the sunlit green of the hills and blue of the sea. All the while, my heart was bursting with love and joy at the beauty and wonder of it all, at the sheer delight of existence, of a life well lived, of gratitude at the loveliness of the people surrounding me and the love and happiness I enjoyed, and I was filled with it, too. It was a bit like that feeling you get when you come off the best fairground ride ever and you’re thinking,

‘Blimey! That was a blast. I must do it again.’

Except it was a million times better. It was pretty fucking extraordinary. Because I was sort of feeling it as if it was me, but also feeling it with someone else; their feelings, being shown. And I may be nuts to say this, and I’m definitely laying myself open saying it in a public place but it felt as if, somehow, my efforts to connect to Dad had succeeded, as if those were his last conscious thoughts.

After it was gone, the traffic slowed more and I had to contend with the bell ends in the van behind me who were so close I couldn’t see their headlights. Clearly my decision to leave a 20 yard stopping distance, crying my eyes out as I was, my vision blurry with tears, offended them. But I was unable to stop and blurb properly because you can’t on that bit and I didn’t fancy sitting up the arse of the car in front while visually impaired! I gave them a brakes test and they backed off.

Back in Sussex, the people at the home washed and dressed my dad, and laid him out with a palm cross in his hands. Another act of humanity and love.

See you later Dad.

Back on the M25 I tried to reimagine the experience I’d just had, the connection, the joy, but I couldn’t make it feel the same. It wasn’t just because you can never quite recreate the impact of something like that a second time, but also because it didn’t feel as if it had come from me. It felt as if it had come into my mind from outside. Maybe those were my father’s last conscious thoughts.

Later, when I returned to register Dad’s death, I went to see his body. All I could think of was that bit in whichever gospel it is when the women go to look in the tomb to embalm Jesus and there’s some bloke is in there who basically says,

‘Why are you looking for him in here among the dead? Fuck off back to where he is; with the living.’

A good death then.

The connection? Still there. Quietly, in the background, giving me strength.

Death Is Nothing At All

By Henry Scott-Holland

Death is nothing at all.
It does not count.
I have only slipped away into the next room.
Nothing has happened.

Everything remains exactly as it was.
I am I, and you are you,
and the old life that we lived so fondly together is untouched, unchanged.
Whatever we were to each other, that we are still.

Call me by the old familiar name.
Speak of me in the easy way which you always used.
Put no difference into your tone.
Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow.

Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes that we enjoyed together.
Play, smile, think of me, pray for me.
Let my name be ever the household word that it always was.
Let it be spoken without an effort, without the ghost of a shadow upon it.

Life means all that it ever meant.
It is the same as it ever was.
There is absolute and unbroken continuity.
What is this death but a negligible accident?

Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight?
I am but waiting for you, for an interval,
somewhere very near,
just round the corner.

All is well.
Nothing is hurt; nothing is lost.
One brief moment and all will be as it was before.
How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again

Source: https://www.familyfriendpoems.com/poem/death-is-nothing-at-all-by-henry-scott-holland

This poem was read at Dad’s funeral and shortly afterwards, one of the lovely people on my mailing list sent it to me, which rather heartened me as I must be collecting a group of the right kind of people!

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The end … probably.

This week, I don’t know where to begin. It was one of the most intense and strange experiences of my life. Let’s start with Monday.

Monday morning I went to the gym and came home with a list of bits and bobs I needed to do for my writing. As I sat down, to write, I realised I’d missed a call from Dad’s home. I rang and was put through to the nurse who was looking after him that day.

‘Your father did not eat or drink anything yesterday and he is refusing all food and drink today,’ he said. ‘I think we are close to the end.’

‘Oh bless him, poor Dad. Do you need me to come now?’ I asked. 

‘You don’t need to come, but if you want to see him, you should come.’

‘I’m coming down to see him on Wednesday.’

‘He may be here on Wednesday. He is going down slowly, but today or tomorrow is better.’

‘D’you mean, Wednesday will be too late?’

‘If he carries on this way, I think so, although it is difficult to say.’

‘Has a priest seen him?’

‘Not yet, there is a number we can call, would you like us to get one?’

‘Yes please, he’s Church of England, an Anglican I’ll try and get the parish priest from his own church to come too.’

‘He won’t be alone, when they reach this stage, we always make sure is someone with them at all times.’

Go softly into the night …

I said thank you and rang off.

So here it was, the moment all of us had been dreading, yet kind of hoping for too. It looked like Dad was on his deathbed, time to scramble the troops. But this is Alzhiemer’s so there was nothing to say Dad wouldn’t start eating and drinking and be fine, indeed, in my own mind, I had this last bit pegged as the lying-in-a-bed-year.

This is where WhatsApp is a godsend. I managed to tell everyone, barring a couple of folks, with one message to our WhatsApp group. The biggie was telling Mum, though, because she was alone until midday and I wanted to be sure there was someone with her when I passed on the news.

That evening, McMini wanted to bring a friend home after school. He pushed, I said no, he told me the friend had to come because his mother had already said it was OK and left the school gates, I told him no, he kept pushing and I explained Pops was ill. Still he wanted the friend to come and I’m afraid I snapped, angry with him for not appearing to give a shit, I told him his grandfather was on his death bed, that his father was on the way home so I could go say goodbye and that I was not in a very fit state to play the part of kindly friend’s Mum, but I let him bring the friend home for a short visit.

I felt terrible for breaking it to him like that. The little lads took a long time to arrive and I discovered that McMini had hung up and then cried his eyes out, at which point he and friend had stopped and sat on a bench so friend could comfort him and friend had cried too. I felt bad but also reassured that he cared more than he’d made out.

I got hold of Mum and Dad’s parish priest and she promised to be at Dad’s bedside that evening. True to her word, she arrived shortly after Mum and gave Dad the last rites, or Extreme Unction which sounds like some kind of dangerous sport. Dad was quiet and not very responsive but incredibly peaceful when it was done.

My brother and I drove down to Sussex on the Monday evening, but it turned out that Dad had taken a little water and eaten some sweets, perhaps he was on the mend? We didn’t know.

We discussed it. What do you do in a death bed situation? Life is not the same as it was, you can’t stop the world and step out of it for a couple of weeks to sit, in vigil, by a slowly fading loved one. It’s a luxury modern life no longer affords us. There’s stuff to do and the bastards who want you to do it consider such a situation no excuse. Commerce can’t afford space for acts of compassion like that.

At five thirty a.m. on Tuesday I woke with a start to find my mother standing over me, complete with walker.

‘We have to ring the home.’

‘What? Now?’

‘Yes.’

‘It’s five am.’

‘They said we could ring any time.’

‘On you go then.’

‘You’re the main point of contact, you have to do it.’

Sometimes I forget that my Mum has dementia too. So I rang the home. He was comfortable and had eaten a couple of sweets and had some water.

We went to see him on Tuesday. The four of us, together as a family, painfully aware that it was probably for the last time. He wasn’t hugely responsive, although I felt maybe that was the way we were dealing with it. Maybe we weren’t engaging him right, because throughout his illness, Dad has made the running, asked the questions which we answer. Always the host, asking us how we are, who our relations are, and asking after them. A polite interrogation, sometimes after those he loves, sometimes, engaging us in conversation as if he’s meeting us for the first time.

Lancing Beach near our lunch venue.

He lay there, looking at his hands, even frailer and thinner than last week, ravaged partly by his illness and partly through force of his own will. His head like a skull with thin skin stretched over it, the lesions … I thought of him as I’d known him, remembered our holidays when I was a nipper, squelching across the mud on Stiffkey salt marsh. Dad was a man who loved the sun on his skin and the squelch of the mud between his toes! I wished for a lot of things that I can’t have.

He was very peaceful. It was like sitting in a doctor’s waiting room, Dad was calm and clearly perfectly content, waiting …

We went out to lunch afterwards. It felt like this was a good and gentle death, even if it’s a slow one, and I didn’t fully hoist in how upset Mum was until she couldn’t eat anything.

Later, we tried to work out a plan of action. What to do? Was this was the first of many deathbed scrambles, or was there was only going to be the one. Eventually, we decided that he probably wasn’t going to die in the next few days. My brother decided to go home and come back at the weekend. I decided to stay until Wednesday morning because I’d agreed to meet a lovely family friend and see Dad with him.

Wednesday came, Dad was still around, said friend turned up. I shan’t name him because I haven’t asked him if I can so I’ll just call him Adba. Anyone who should know will realise exactly who that is and no-one else will be any the wiser. Anyway, Adba turned up and off we went. His mother spent the last year or so of her life in bed, in a similar state to the one Dad was in now, so when we walked in, he knew exactly what to do. He took Dad’s hand, called him by his name, said he was looking well, acted as if Dad was perfectly responsive and of course, the miracle happened. Dad was.

He couldn’t speak, but his face broke into the most delighted smile and he raised his hand and waved a jokey wiggly fingers wave. Adba waved back. I waved. We laughed, Dad smiled.

We reminisced about the Hogworts set I grew up on, Dad’s time there and the other members of staff. Dad smiled and nodded and sometimes shook his head and waved several times. Adba and I recalled funny stories to Dad about his exploits as a housemaster, and shared them with one another.

Forty minutes flew by and it was time to go. I took Dad’s hand and told him I loved him, that he was the best father anyone could ever have had, that McOther, McMini, his other grandchildren, my brother, my mum, (and pretty much Uncle Tom Cobbley and all by the time I’d finished listing everyone who wasn’t there and who’d want me to tell him while he was with it) loved him. He smiled, a wonderful huge smile, and squeezed my hand again and again as I spoke. Both of us were just filled with joy. It was one of those rare moments of connection and love without words, when even if he couldn’t speak, he didn’t need to be able to. At the end I said goodbye. Dad and I both know what kind of goodbye it was – Adba probably knew and all – but I told Dad I’d see him next week anyway, and Adba said he’d be back to see the old boy the week after, we said we’d see Dad together that time, same as this visit.

It was a near perfect farewell for me and I am eternally grateful to Adba, whose presence, and whose wisdom in engaging with Dad made it possible. Those smiles and those squeezes of the hand were wonderful. I just feel bad that we didn’t take Mum with us to share them too.

Adba and I came out of the home, only to immediately get a phone call from Mum’s carer. My uncle on Mum’s side who was coming to lunch that day, had arrived with a gargantuan nosebleed. The carer at home reckoned it would be best if she rang the pub we ate in and got them to do a takeaway, could we pick it up? Of course we could. A few seconds later we were directed to a different pub.

We duly picked up the fish and chips, they took a little while so Adba and I had half a pint of Harveys each in the garden. When we picked up the lunch we left in haste, without paying. Arriving home, it turned out that Uncle’s nose was still bleeding. He was sitting on a stool in the downstairs loo, and it looked as if someone had been murdered in there, but only after a good twenty minutes of stiff resistance.

Oh dear.

Taking in the bloodied surroundings, I began to wonder about blood loss at this point and suggested an ambulance. In the end, carer – who shared my concerns – and gardener – who was ‘mowing the lawn’ but really just checking Mum was OK – leapt into carer’s car and drove Uncle and Aunt to hospital, gardener escorting them in while carer parked. I did manage to get Aunt to eat half her fish so at least she wasn’t going to be sitting there feeling hungry as well as worried.

Off they went, leaving Adba, Mum and I finishing off the fish and chips the others hadn’t eaten. At this point I remembered we hadn’t paid for them, rang the pub and paid by credit card. I announced that I was going to be very British about the murder scene in the downstairs loo and pretend it didn’t exist while we had a chat. Adba left at half three and I went and cleared up. It took until half four. Then I deep cleaned our spare room so Uncle and Aunt could sleep there because I didn’t think either of them was in a fit state to go home. Once I’d done that, I realised I was going to have to stay Wednesday night as well because Mum already has dementia but the state of Dad has really knocked her for six and so she’s even more challenged in the memory department than usual, bless her. I didn’t want her waking up and being surprised to find her brother there and the state she was in, she might have done.

Uncle and Aunt finally got back late, I had a light supper ready. We did breakfast the next morning and then they had a follow up appointment at the hospital at 1.30. They wanted to take a taxi to the hospital rather than drive so I sorted that out for them. Finally at about 12.00 I set off for home. I arrived with half an hour to spare before I needed to be meeting McMini at small church, which he does on a Thursday. I used that half an hour buying some summer clothes that fitted my ever expanding, ever more zeppelin-like body.

It’s Friday as I write this and I’ve just received a call from my Mum to say that Dad has been given a prognosis of hours if it’s bad, a day or two if it’s good. So it’s back to Sussex again, although I need two good night’s sleep in a decent bed before I go back down there, and also, half term plus Bank Holiday Friday traffic tonight? No thanks. Not even with the Jo Whiley show, which was a wonderful tonic as I snivelled my way round the M25 on Monday.

No. The sensible course is to go tomorrow morning. By the time you read this, I will be creeping slowly round Britain’s most congested motorway. Dad may well be gone, and if he isn’t he’ll be very close. So, if you’re on the M25 tomorrow and there’s this fifty year old bag in a knackered Lotus, with the headlights on because the daylight running bulbs are bust, ear plugs in and the music on really loud, looking as if she’s got really bad hay fever, feel free to give me a wave!

In death’s dark vale I fear no ill
With thee, dear Lord, beside me;
They rod and staff my comfort still,
Thy cross before to guide me.

Goodbye Dad. And thank you. It’s been wonderful.

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